Introducing Canada via Stereotypes

On Monday morning a few ALTs, including myself, went to an elementary school to give brief presentations on our respective home countries. Unfortunately, I had to get up super early to make it into the city on time for the start of school. It ended up being worth it, though, as the kids seemed really excited to have us there, and the short introduction they gave on Canada before introducing me was worth the trip in. Let me explain. We were told that the kids were doing a “passport” project, in which they theoretically travelled around to different countries and got their passport stamped. We would represent our home countries and the children would approach us, ask us questions and we would give them a sticker of our flag for their passport books. Prior to this, we would be introduced to the school in an assembly. We were told to have a brief presentation prepared to introduce ourselves and our country. The kids, before our introduction, gave us a presentation of Japan and some of the traditions that are native to the country (origami, sumo, etc). Then they gave a short powerpoint which presented each of our countries through a question and answer game. For example, for New Zealand they showed the kiwi bird, and asked what the name of the bird was, and its country or origin showing the bird beside a picture of the kiwi fruit before showing the correct answers: Kiwi and New Zealand. For Jamaica, they showed pictures of famous exports, and asked which was most popular (coffee was the answer). But Canada was, to me, the most hilarious. I expected a picture of the CN Tower to appear on the screen, or perhaps the Rocky Mountains, or another great shot of the vastness of Canadian nature, or maybe even a picture of a beaver or Justin Beiber (apparently the most famous things from our great country in the eyes of the Japanese). No, for our introduction, up on the screen: a smashed car; a car completely totaled. I thought, “what poor country are they trying to show with this picture?” Then the question “what caused this accident?” appeared. I notice that the car is totaled only on the top half, the hood remaining mostly intact. I only know of one way cars get damaged this way. I look around and everyone is staring blankly, thinking to themselves, “what country is this supposed to be introducing?” or “what country would cause distinct accidents such as this?” As I look around at the blank faces, I realize it is Canada; and that car most definitely hit a moose. As the answer is shown, a giant moose with a size comparison next to the damaged car (and a Canadian flag shown proudly above), the other ALTs look at me. I shrug and say “it’s true, that’s what happens”. And so this is how Canada was introduced to a school of elementary students. In my introduction after that I mostly just rambled on about maple syrup. I thought about doing a speech inspired by a Molson’s “I AM CANADIAN” commercial, but figured I should save that for at least Junior High kids. Kids would come up to me and for the question required for the stamp, ask “Do you like maple?” and I would reply “Of course, I am Canadian”. It’s funny, sometimes, how much each of us fills our stereotypes for our respective countries, but I can say with great pride that I am happy I am representing Canada!

(Side note: NONE OF MY FRIENDS KNOW WHO WAYNE GRETZKY IS! NONE OF THEM! Some also seemed to find it hilarious that I, while living at home, always have a bottle of maple syrup in the fridge – as do almost all people I know – because we actually do eat maple syrup quite a lot.)

That’s all for now! Until next time,


Earthquake 2

One thing I don’t think I will get used to while living in Japan is the earthquakes. Something about your apartment building swaying and your dishes rattling while you are on the 6th floor just makes you feel like the earth is trying to swallow you whole. I experienced what I believe is my second earthquake since arriving in Japan. Shikoku is lucky in that earthquakes are considered relatively rare here in comparison to the rest of Japan. I had only spent 3 days in Tokyo before experiencing one, but I have been here for a few months without having to endure another. Anyway, was just curling up into my warm bed with an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” when everything started shaking. It’s weird how your first reaction is: “it’s the wind!” or ” it’s just a large truck driving by,” when that obviously would not create the force to shake a large apartment building. After a few seconds, I thought, “oh it’s an earthquake” – except it was more like “OH IT’S AN EARTHQUAKE” – and I ran to the window to look outside at the ocean. Fortunately, there was no large wave making its way to shore. People were still walking about, bringing home groceries and chatting to neighbors. Apparently I am the only one this one seemed to startle. It mainly hit Hiroshima, where it was a 5.6, and we just got a bit of it – it was only rated a 2 here. (Really? That was only a 2? I would hate to see myself in a real emergency.)

An interesting sidenote though is that about 10 minutes before the earthquake the local dogs started HOWLING. Like, really howling. I was like, “shut up I’m trying to watch my stories”. They immediately stopped after the earthquake. Coincidence? Or could they sense it?

Another sidenote: All the students have tests this week, so I have no lessons but I still have to come to school. There is literally nothing for me to do here so I just sit at my desk and pretend to study Japanese (which is actually backfiring because I am really NOT studying Japanese… Really, I am sleeping with my eyes open, but other teachers have noticed that I am “studying” so they keep trying to quiz me and ask me questions regarding what I have in front of me and I never know the answer because I am not studying. So they have to walk away disappointed. It’s awkward. Yes, I realize I could solve this problem by actually studying, but let’s be real, I am just not that productive).

Studio Ghibli versus Walt Disney

I spent my Sunday, thanks to Katie and her seemingly endless supply of movies, watching two films, both Studio Ghibli: “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. Katie provided me with these movies via USB the other day, upon realizing I had never heard of Studio Ghibli or seen either film. For those of you who are as naive as me, let me explain as it as explained to me: “Studio Ghibli is the Japanese version of Walt Disney“. I figured that was all I need to know, and got my Sunday started with “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

Now, I had mentioned when I first arrived in Japan that I would like to soak up some of the literature and film of the country, and by that I did not necessarily think that children’s cartoons would suffice. But I beg to differ with my old self, now. As an avid Disney fan (who isn’t?), I thought it interesting to compare the differences and similarities between my first two Studio Ghibli films with the familiar stories we all know from Walt Disney, such as “Snow White” or “Cinderella”. Although both “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away” contain similar underlying themes to the traditional Disney stories we all love, as well as essentially similar plot lines: curses, true love, the young and innocent being swept away on an adventure they could have never imagined, I found there were underlying unique differences that make each of these studio’s films unique to their respective cultures.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” tells the story of Sophie and her run-in with witches and wizards and demons and her struggle to overcome a curse cast upon her. From my perspective, the curse cast on Sophie at the beginning of the film, which transforms her into an old woman, seems to be pure chance and bad luck. Unlike, say, “Snow White”, in which the heroine is cursed for being the “fairest of them all”, Sophie just seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, in “Spirited Away”, Chihiro/Sen gets swept up in the spirit world haphazardly through entering an abandoned amusement park at the fault of her parents. Although one could argue that in all four films (“Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and “Spirited Away”) each heroine’s curse and adventure happen through no fault of their own. The focus on the Studio Ghibli films seems to be less about how the curse occurs or why, and more about the story being told as a result. In fact, very little time is devoted in the film before the curse occurs or after in both films. Although the transformation of Chihiro’s parents into overeating pigs due to their inability to control themselves at the sight of delicious food was certainly a fairly straightforward metaphor, so perhaps didn’t require much more time. One cannot discuss the curse without noting who casts it, and in Studio Ghibli films the antagonist is no small character; both figuratively and literally. The characters are huge… as in fat and large. In “Howl’s Moving Castle” the witch is literally a woman without a neck but with a million chins. In “Spirited Away” the woman, although possessing a body of a somewhat normal size, has a head and nose that is larger than life and bear no resemblance to the scrawny witch antagonists seen in Disney’s films.

The male protagonist’s role in the Studio Ghibli films also bear little resemblance to their Disney counterparts. In “Howl’s Moving Castle”, Howl is a stubborn and fearful wizard, whose love of beauty blinds him to the true nature of people. In one part of the film, his hair changes colour from blonde to black and his reaction is: “If I cannot be beautiful I see no point in living anymore”, and he turns himself into a pile of sludge, placing himself and others around him in danger. He also notes that the reason the antagonist witch is pursing them is because once Howl found her to be beautiful so he “pursued her”, but upon realizing she wasn’t he simply “ran away”. His moping attitude is not at all desirable and it was hard for me as a viewer to feel sympathetic with him (perhaps I am not supposed to). He begs Sophie to go to the castle on his behalf, acting as his mother, in an attempt to get himself out of trouble he finds himself in, another example of his inability to accept responsibility. There is no “prince” set out to rescue the cursed and innocent as often found in the Disney films. However, perhaps as an interesting culture note, both male protagonists in these two films possess the ability to transform into other-than-human creatures (Howl a large bird and Haku a dragon) and thus are able to fly which saves the heroine from grim circumstances throughout both films. As dragon folklore goes far back in Japanese history, it was less surprising to see it in this film then it would have been in an American film. In “Spirited Away”, Haku is a little bit more charming and helpful to the young Chihiro/Sen in comparison to Howl. However (without giving too much away, in case you haven’t seen the film yet yourself), one learns later that Haku is much more than just a boy trapped in the spirit world Chihiro finds herself in. Also, due to Chihiro’s young age, any sort of romance would be incredibly awkward to watch, so the film sort of avoids it altogether.

This leads me to another point… the “happily ever after”. Studio Ghibli films and Walt Disney films have completely different endings, as I briefly touched on earlier. I won’t say much more about it, as I encourage you to watch these films yourself and I strongly believe in not knowing the ending to the film before you start it.

I find the cultural undertones within the film very surprising. I guess I didn’t expect the differences between Ghibli and Disney films to be so apparent. From the general storyline to the plot details (such as Howl’s so called “castle” or the bathhouse in “Spirited Away” – which I should note was apparently based off of the bathhouse found here in Matsuyama – crazy!), the whole feel of the films are different than that of our traditional Disney stories.

In observing the differences in North American and Japanese culture through these films, I am reminded of a day last week at school, where a student approached me and asked, “Rachel-sensei, do you believe in fortune telling?” I responded, “I don’t know, maybe… Do you?” And his response: “I’m Japanese! Of course I do!” This prompted me to be aware of the underlying thought processes of culture differences that perhaps are less easily observed but are glimpsed through film and literature. I hope to observe more of this by getting into some Japanese poetry. I found a book which contains a series of traditional Japanese poems alongside their English translations and I am itching to purchase it!

I will end this rambling post by simply saying that I found these two films very unique in comparison to the films I am familiar with from my youth, specifically the Walt Disney cartoons. I will leave it up to you to form your own opinions on the films, if you get around to watching them, and please let me know what you think if you do!

Uchiko Moon Viewing Clip

I created a youtube account in order to share my accumulation of videos with you. This uploaded video is from back in September when Catherine, Katie, (and Tim for a little while), and I visited Uchiko for the “Harvest Moon Viewing” Festival. The beginning is dark, but soon you begin to hear the music which sets the tone for the beauty of the evening. I hope you can get a feel for what we experienced there. It was lovely. It seems like so long ago already!

I also uploaded a video from some fireworks I saw in Mitsuhama on one of my first few weekends in Japan. Not sure I ever wrote about it (it was another “getting lost” story, but had the iPhone so it was so much easier to “get found” again)… These fireworks were unique because they depicted characters.  Watch and enjoy (especially the last one – AFRO)!

Enjoy your weekend!

The Mask

This just in. I lasted almost two whole days at work without being told to wear a mask. Here I sit at my desk, hacking away, but denying my ill health, when my English teacher approaches with a mask in hand… I tried to avert my eyes… I thought “this can’t be for me” but sure enough, she stops at my desk, “Rachel-sensei, please wear this and take care”. NOOOO!

The white surgeon mask. Worn by non-surgeons in Japan to ward off disease and to prevent the spreading of illness. Although I have only had this on for a whole two minutes now, I must say it has is advantages. For one, I never realized how much I put my hands near my mouth until I had this mask on. That’s probably how I got sick in the first place. I don’t have to cover my mouth when I cough. The mask covers pretty much all my face but my eyes, so no one can see my nose which is a bright red from all the tissues. Disadvantages: it’s kind of hard to breathe. But, I can’t breathe through my nose anyway, so I was earlier just sitting here like an idiot with my mouth gaping open attempting to suck in oxygen around me but struggling… It was real attractive. No one can see now because of the mask.

I am not the only one in the office wearing one, and there are a ton of students wearing them, so it’s actually no big deal. But there you have it.